New insights into synaesthesia

Scientists studying the bizarre phenomenon of synaesthesia – best described as a "union of the senses" whereby two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together – have made a new breakthrough in their attempts to understand the condition.

V.S. Ramachandran and Elizabeth Seckel from the University of San Diego studied four synaesthetes who experience colour when seeing printed letters of the alphabet. Their aim was to determine at what point during sensory processing these 'colours' appeared.

To do this, the researchers asked their synaesthetes – as well as a – to complete three children's picture puzzles in which words were printed backwards or were not immediately visible.  

When the results were processed, Ramachandran and Seckel discovered that the synaesthetes were able to complete the puzzles three times faster than the control subjects, and with fewer errors. The synaesthetes also revealed that they saw the obscured letters in the puzzles in the same colour as they would the 'normal' letters. This process effectively clued them in to what the letters were, and allowed them to read the distorted words much more quickly than the controls could.

Although it was just a small study, Ramachandran and Seckel's work, published in the current issue of Neurocase, 'strongly supports the interpretation that the synthetic colours are evoked preconsciously early in sensory processing'. The four synaesthetes had an advantage in completing the puzzles because the 'extra' information they received when looking at the letters was then sent up to 'higher levels of , providing additional insight for reading the distorted and backwards text': a fascinating and important insight into a condition those of us who see letters as just letters find simply baffling.

More information: Neurocase, 'Synesthetic colors induced by graphemes that have not been consciously perceived', V.S. Ramachandrana & Elizabeth Seckela
DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2014.890728

Related Stories

Reading in two colours at the same time

date Mar 09, 2011

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once wrote in his autobiographical book (What do you care what other people think?): "When I see equations, I see letters in colors - I don't know why [...] And I wonder what t ...

Seeing red -- in the number 7

date Oct 22, 2008

Hypnosis can induce synaesthetic experiences – where one sense triggers the involuntary use of another – according to a new study by UCL (University College London) researchers. The findings suggests that people with ...

Synaesthesia linked to a hyper-excitable brain

date Nov 18, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- ‘Hyper-excitability’ in regions of the brain may underlie synaesthesia, an unusual condition where some people experience a ‘blending of the senses’, Oxford University ...

Recommended for you

How insulin calms brain activity

date 30 minutes ago

Insulin has long been known as the hormone which controls the body's sugar levels: humans who lack or are insensitive to insulin develop diabetes. Although insulin is also made and released in the brain, ...

Men and women could use different cells to process pain

date 23 hours ago

We have known for some time that there are sex differences when it comes to experiencing pain, with women showing a higher sensitivity to painful events compared to men. While we don't really understand w ...

Pupillary reflex enhanced by light inside blind spot

date Jun 30, 2015

University of Tokyo researchers have found that the light reflex of the pupil is modulated by light stimulation inside the blind spot in normal human observers, even though that light is not perceived.

How your brain knows it's summer

date Jun 29, 2015

Researchers led by Toru Takumi at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have discovered a key mechanism underlying how animals keep track of the seasons. The study, published in Proceedings of the Na ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.